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Marshall Fine

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Why Cultural Literacy Is Dying

Posted: 08/15/11 01:42 PM ET

I read a piece earlier this month by Virginia Heffernan on the New York Times website that struck a chord and kind of crystallized something I'd been thinking.

Simply put, I'm ready to concede that context and cultural literacy -- the awareness of cultural history and its impact and influence on contemporary art, whether it's literature, film, music or something else -- don't really matter to today's audience. They still matter to me, but more about that in a minute.

Heffernan was writing about education and the fact that most current education models don't take the digital age -- and the way young people receive information today -- into account. There is still this expectation that the old ways are the best, still have value -- that the canon, as it were, still has importance. But, as Heffernan observed:

When we criticize students for making digital videos instead of reading Gravity's Rainbow, or squabbling on Politico.com instead of watching The Candidate, we are blinding ourselves to the world as it is. And then we're punishing students for our blindness. Those hallowed artifacts -- the Thomas Pynchon novel and the Michael Ritchie film -- had a place in earlier social environments. While they may one day resurface as relevant, they are now chiefly of interest to cultural historians.

The examples she picks -- Pynchon's sort-of unreadable postmodern novel from 1972 and Ritchie's cult classic from 1972 -- are odd but not inappropriate. Both are the kinds of titles that critics still reference. Or, at least, critics who are old enough to be aware of them. And when you come right down to it, critics are cultural historians of a sort, trying to tie the present to the past.

Audiences, however, apparently don't give a rip. Or, at least, the audience that seem to matter most now, people in their 30s or younger. Cultural literacy -- as in, having an awareness of culture before, say, 1980 -- is dying. Those values hold no sway with this audience.

Not that I don't cling to the notion that taking a more global or historical view is important in reviewing films. But it also seems increasingly futile. I'm not going to change my approach; but I'm aware that there is a growing audience that simply doesn't care about that stuff.

I knew this stuff but I guess I didn't want to admit it to myself. For example (and this isn't really news), most people don't seek edification from popular entertainment -- they just want something that lets them escape for a little while.

The urge for knowledge, growth, quality and standards don't really figure in most people's decision when they're seeking entertainment. Yet the critic tries to approach his job as if the opposite were true -- that quality is what matters most to audiences, instead of least.

This isn't new.

This commentary continues on my website.

 
 
 

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